Reporter's Notebook: Foreigners face danger in Egypt

"There are spies everywhere," said the man questioning me in polite English. "People are crazy with suspicion."

February 8, 2011 04:04
Anti-Mubarak Protesters in Egypt

Egypt Barbed Wire 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

CAIRO – As Egypt reaches new levels of instability, many here have blamed the foreign media for fomenting the protests against the regime.

Dozens of journalists have been beaten, detained and incarcerated for carrying out duties that would arouse no suspicions or problems in most countries of the world. I experienced this first hand when I was arrested a few days ago.

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At a checkpoint in a Cairo neighborhood, my vehicle was stopped by one of many makeshift roadblocks erected across the city at night to protect neighborhoods from looters. A man of about 25 with a thick brown club poked his head in the window and asked for my passport, I thought it was just another of the routine stops that I had encountered dozens of times in the past few days.

But when the man saw realized I was not Egyptian, he asked me to exit the vehicle. And when passersby saw a foreigner being interrogated, they quickly approached.

Soon an armed group of a dozen men, carrying everything from metal studded clubs and hunting knives to shotguns, formed around me.

One Egyptian, resembling a resident of Tel Aviv’s Rehov Shenkin with his his long hair and beard, approached me with a Moses-like wooden staff and asked, “Ma inyanim?” – “What’s up?” in Hebrew. I feigned incomprehension.

He then asked me, in English, if I spoke Hebrew. I replied, “I speak English. Do you speak Hebrew?” It seemed he was a Sinai Beduin who had spent much time carousing with Israelis in the peninsula.

Telling me I would be fine and that there was no problem, he turned to a friend and said in Arabic, “He’s a Jew.”

This assertion stirred panic among the men guarding the road and they motioned me to sit on the sidewalk. They made a few phone calls and after 25 minutes, a dozen security officers arrived in a truck, wearing blue uniforms, equipped with armored vests and Kalashnikov rifles.

A plain-clothed man approached me. Speaking in fluent English, he asked me for my cellphone before returning to his comrades. After a few minutes, one of the officers in blue motioned me to get up. He led me to his truck, where he firmly pressed my head down against the hood with his elbow and kicked open my legs. He diligently patted me down before putting me in the back of his truck. I was asked no questions.

Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt

We drove through the dusty Cairo streets, the tall lampposts illuminating the dark paths. As the truck’s suspension bounced with every pothole, a Kalashnikov pressed firmly in my back pushed deeper against my skin. I feared that the next might see a finger slip on the trigger. When I asked the soldier to be careful with his rifle, he smacked my skull with the barrel. From then on, I tried to remain silent.

We traveled for about half an hour, then stopped before a building.

I realized we had reached a military command post and not one of the notorious riot police bases, and heaved a temporary sigh of relief, believing the army would not torture me.

But my relief was short-lived.

Three Egyptians in plainclothes approached the truck. They began peppering me with questions in Arabic. Again I feigned incomprehension, fearing that to answer would be to heighten their suspicions.

As it was, these three men would cause me much hardship.

They alternatively accused me of being an Israeli spy and a CIA agent. They charged that I had been sent to destabilize Egypt and bring down the government in order to make the country a Western puppet.

At one point, still in the truck, I was yanked forward by my beard by one of the trio. Starring into my eyes, he told me in Arabic that he was going to behead me, but not before I was sodomized. “We will torture you, rape you, and cut your throat, you Jew,” he said in Arabic.

This, in turn, incited the security officers in the truck. They began harassing me, thrusting their weapons into my face and yelling at me to put my head down.

After 45 minutes of such harassment, a plainclothed man motioned the officers to move me out of the truck. I was handcuffed and placed on the sidewalk.

Now the trio began kicking me and calling me a spy until another man approached and ordered them to stop. I saw him as a savior at first, but my view of him quickly soured when he motioned for me to be blindfolded. I feared those accosting me would now attack at will, but that didn’t happen.

Instead, a man began politely asking me questions in English.

“Why are you in Egypt?” he began.

I responded that I was a tourist who had been unable to leave the country.

“Do you have anything to do with the events happening now?” he continued. I said no.

“You are not a journalist?” I again responded no.

Responding to the tranquil tone in his voice, I asked him if I would be released. He replied that everything would be fine.

He disappeared for about 10 minutes, returned and guided me to another vehicle, placing me between two men in the backseat.

We drove for a few minutes, and then he instructed the man next to me to remove the blindfold and the handcuffs restricting my blood circulation.

“I am sorry for this,” he said.

“We have to be careful now. There are spies here. But you, too, need to be careful. It is too dangerous for foreigners now. People are crazy with suspicion.”

I did my best to laugh along with the heavyset man next to me, whose beaming smile indicating he held no grudge against me. As we navigated a dozen checkpoints staffed by ordinary citizens, he offered me a cigarette.

When we arrived at my destination, the men apologized, shook my hand and disappeared into the night.

The byline used here, for obvious reasons, is a pseudonym.

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